In her new novel, Katherine Chen puts a fresh spin on the oft-examined life of the girl who saved France.
Jess Walter reviews JOAN, by Katherine J. Chen
“It’s hard to name a historical figure who has inspired more writers than Joan of Arc. Yet it’s equally difficult to imagine a character more incomprehensible to the modern ear than the 15th-century French mystic, martyr and war hero.
In “Joan,” her affecting and adventurous new novel, Katherine J. Chen takes a lively stab, imagining the illiterate teenager as an abused child who uses her anger (and a remarkable tolerance for pain) to become an avenging warrior. Wowing crowds with feats of strength, breaking bones with her bare hands, this is Joan of Arc, Action Hero. Chen is certainly not the first writer to view such a mysterious life through the lens of contemporary genre.
Dozens of filmmakers have given it a go, trying everything from war-film “realism” to rock music interludes to a young Ingrid Bergman. And books? In her 2000 essayistic biography “Joan of Arc,” Mary Gordon counts some 20,000 Joan titles in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale alone.
The daunting list of writers taking on the heroine of France begins with Shakespeare, whose Joan swings in “Henry VI, Part 1” from pious saint to possible tart (or just someone who’ll say anything to avoid being burned at the stake) — scholars still debating whether Shakespeare’s La Pucelle is an uncommonly incoherent character or an inherently comic one.
This is the knock on dramatic Joans: They don’t quite add up. T.S. Eliot thought George Bernard Shaw reduced her to a “middle-class reformer” in his 1923 play, while Shaw thought Mark Twain’s 1896 novel was overly “infatuated” with its subject. (Twain seemed to think he was the writer who captured her best. He called “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” his best book, though he was the only one to think so.)
Why such difficulty in locating a relatable, coherent human being within the Joan legend? Especially when, as Twain put it, what we know about Joan’s life seems to come directly from the source, “under oath … from the witness stand” during her 1431 heresy trial.
Part of it might be that humans are not all that coherent, especially when testifying for their lives. Part of it is our inability to relate to a 15th century so full of virgins-with-visions that the church had a process for dealing with them. Part of it, too, is the singularity of Joan’s life; there are no precursors, and, almost 600 years later, no parallels.
But part of it, surely, is the way history paternalistically portrays Joan, focusing on a question that befuddled popes, poets and playwrights: How did an illiterate peasant girl — emphasis on the word girl — come from nowhere to inspire and lead the French in victorious battle against the English, turning the tide of the Hundred Years’ War?
Chen’s solution is elegant and timely. Her Joan is just plain tougher than all those knights and noblemen, a born fighter who, as a child, recreates Agincourt with rocks, gets a bull’s-eye with her very first attempt at a longbow and is a preternatural genius at military planning.
As Chen’s Dauphin (the embattled heir to the French crown) puts it, “You are neither a scholar nor a philosopher nor an ambassador. … So, I ask again, what is it that you can do for us?”
Her answer could come with a John Williams soundtrack. “‘Majesty,’ Joan says quietly, ‘I can fight.’”
In Chen’s fictional telling, Joan’s motivation is not prophetic but personal: a violent father and the brutal rape of her sister by raiding English soldiers. (The historical Joan’s sister Catherine died in childbirth.)
“I have thought to myself,” Joan tells the Dauphin, “What choices does a woman have for vengeance, for justice. … So when I spoke to God that morning, I decided, if I am to scream, let it be in battle.”
This is stirring stuff, and Chen creates a rich, visceral world, from Joan’s father nearly ripping her ear off, to her pulling an arrow from her own neck, as related by her squire: “We heard the sound of flesh tearing. … She bit down, gritting her teeth, and with one last twist, one agonizing wrench, the arrow came free. She threw it aside and gasped for air before sitting up, one hand over her wound.”
This is not your grandmother’s St. Joan. The usual tale of visions and visitations is portrayed here as merely a feature of the time. If Joan wins, by 1429 logic, she must have been sent by God. And since Chen leaves the action before Joan’s trial, we don’t get her vivid testimony about saints bathed in light, or the plain-spoken power of her unshakable faith.
As an act of corrective storytelling, Chen’s novel draws a fine point on the roles traditionally assigned to women, even those as remarkable as Joan of Arc. But this is the story of a 19-year-old woman burned at the stake for the crime of wearing pants (among other offenses); it’s not as if the deep gender bias went unnoticed before.
And by trading religious romanticism for the romanticism of war (especially as depicted by popular fiction), something profound gets lost.
The Joan of history is fascinating because she is enigmatic. To replace her inexplicable nature with a revenge plot is reductive. And to make Joan less mystic makes her less interesting. As Mary Gordon wrote, “The voices (of God and the saints) are dear to her: She speaks of her joy in their presence, her sense of bereftness when they leave her.”
The closest Chen’s Joan gets to reverie is the epilogue, when — captured, caged and headed for certain death — she seems more Mel Gibson than Ingrid Bergman.
“She thinks, I have become more than just myself. … I am the battle cry, the roar of spears, pikes and poleaxes rattling. I am the sound of a hundred horses thundering down a hill and the wind that ripples through banners, the swing of a catapult, the deafening blast and explosion of cannonry. … Before each battle, the foot soldiers, artillerymen and sappers will bend their heads and call my name.”
On and on she goes, not as the eternal saint of France or Christendom, but as a kind of prophet of modern warfare. (She even tries to sell the Dauphin on the merits of a standing army.) It may not be the most nuanced portrayal, but if every generation gets the Joan it deserves, ours could do worse than an ass-kicking, avenging angel fighting simply for the right to fight.”